Playwright and University of Kansas professor Darren Canady knows there’s an art to transforming communities. His semi-autobiographical dramatic writing centers on complex African Americans families from the Midwest dealing with life-altering conflicts.
Sociocultural changes in America spanning the 20th Century provide subtext to Canady’s works. For example, False Creeds, which earned Alliance Theatre’s coveted Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Award in 2007, concentrates on a young man being exposed to his dying grandmother’s connection to the 1921 burning of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street.”
The M. Elizabeth Osborn award winner, Brothers of the Dustexamines tension between siblings on an Arkansas farm post-desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School. Muddy the Wateris a morality play that concentrates on members of a church community confronting their own dirty laundry after a minister is arrested for committing lewd acts in a park.
Canady was raised in a home filled with constant performative storytelling and genealogy lessons. His family’s oral histories include his dad tracing his agricultural lineage rooted in the Ozarks and South Carolina. Members of his mother’s family were small business owners in the all-black Vernon, OK and farmers in Texas.
Incredibly extroverted, the passionate dramatist speaks in detail with his hands: pinching fingers together and pulling his arms towards his body. “The story of my family is a story of migration,” he says.
“There is a bit of a blind spot in the American consciousness, but we’ve been there. It informs so much of the black experience. I made the assumption that it was the same for everyone. Other people can’t write about that because that’s not where they come from. Those stories deserve their own place.”
Any other time Canady speaks, he takes deep breaths and ponders his responses. The compelling writer, sitting comfortably in one the patron rooms of Atlanta’s Horizon Theatre, refers to theatre as “a conversation starter.”
“It’s a place we do the old tradition of gathering together to tell a story,” says Canady. “It’s the interaction between story and audience. The dialogue isn’t just on the stage.”
His current production, Right On!, chronicles a former Civil Rights activist and her son running into her classmates at her alma mater. The story, set in 2004, revisits some unresolved issues from 30 years prior and even reveals some unspoken truths.
Right On! was inspired in part by a New Year’s party Canady attended with his parents. The Carnegie Mellon, NYU and Juilliard alumnus heard numerous stories for the first time about his mother’s radicalism. One of her friends began to chastise Canady’s age group for being apathetic.
Listening empathetically to his elder’s concerns, the inquisitive creator felt it was more effective to speak up through dramatic license. “If we don’t know this information and this history hasn’t been passed on, how can we know how much it means?” says Canady.
“I realized over time as I began to write, it couldn’t be written from a place of frustration with that generation.”
The former T.S. Eliot US/UK Exchange participant credits his ability to vividly capture revealing moments for the stage to his extensive training. Canady, a self-proclaimed “nosy and messy creator,” takes a few moments to talk about the importance of artists obtaining a quality education.
He reiterates students having resilience and dedication. “The institutions I attended taught me the importance of revision, having a thick skin and understanding the job is to tell the story in its most effective way,” says Canady, who held residencies with America-In-Play and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
“It’s not easy. They’re big on establishing artistic identity but also saying what it takes to be a professional. Those years were about maturing not just as a writer but as a person.”
While in college, the stage scenarist ventured into journalism. The former Topeka Capital-Journal intern (and admitted news junkie and avid reader of humorous blog posts) draws parallels between covering beats and playwriting.
“They’re both about capturing the story and providing context,” he says. “My plays are based on newspaper and real life accounts. Playwriting just puts flesh on the story.”
When Canady sits on the other side of the desk as an instructor, he lays ground rules for students taking his courses. He encourages those young writers to find their voice. He appreciates it when their peers can provide constructive criticism so that the final work is cohesive and has continuity.
“I can teach them the craft, but I can’t teach them the art,” says Canady. “It’s a singular voice. Some students are able to craft characters and do something to make the work come alive that no one else could.”
Even with exceptional student writers, Canady still makes his comments and gives them feedback on their drafts.
He lists the qualities that make exceptional playwrights. “They can’t be afraid to revise,” says Canady.
“What comes out on that first draft is not gonna be performed. That’s a big hurdle to place in front of someone, but they do have to get over it. They can’t be afraid to present the work in class and hear someone say they didn’t understand something.”
“If people come with that openness, the writer’s job is to respond to that,” adds Canady. “The ability to engage that person is huge for young writers.”
Between giving undergraduate students writing tips and advising graduate students of color who often feel challenged by the culture of higher education, interacting with students influences Canady’s own creative output.
“They challenge me to be as responsible as I demand they be,” he says. “I have to check myself as I respond to their work. I question my own writing philosophy but in a good way. They force me to evolve.”
As Canady prepared Right On! for the stage and taught his courses, he also spent that same year crafting a play for a predominately ethnic minority high school in Kansas. The students are currently preparing to perform at Edinburgh Festival Fringe later this year.
The project, Canady says, gives him great satisfaction. “Building the play for them was so rewarding,” he says. “I watched them grow as artists and as people. The students not only influenced the work, but my goal for them was for them to see themselves in a different way.”
Canady’s career continues to soar: receiving accolades like the Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, Theodore Ward Prize for African American Playwrights and Juilliard’s Lecomte Du Nouy Prize. This fall, he’s teaching both a freshman seminar and a graduate course.
Creatively, the playwright doesn’t rule out the possibility of his work evolving into a big production. However, Canady prefers to just craft stories that resonate with audiences.
He remembers being at the Alliance and overhearing high school students in the audience debating during False Creeds’ intermission about its closing scenario. They shared their views on their families, gender and communities.
That moment, Canady says, personifies why he is a playwright. “I want them to leave talking,” he says. “It’s most effective when we see ourselves. Theatre is supposed to reflect us back, and that’s powerful.”
Right On! runs at Horizon Theatre Company in Atlanta from July 18 – August 31.
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.